Ma Thida’s love of literature started when, as a young girl growing up in the Myanmar capital Yangon, she discovered a cupboard full of books in her grandfather’s house. She went on to become a surgeon, but continued to write and self-publish short stories. In her 20s, she became an advocate for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and traveled with party leader Aung San Suu Kyi throughout the country, recording Suu Kyi’s speeches and helping write and distribute NLD literature.
Thida’s outspoken blend of politics and writing led to her being jailed in 1993 by the military junta. She was sentenced to 20 years in Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison.
It was there that Thida contracted tuberculosis and severe endometriosis. After intense lobbying from groups such as Amnesty International, she was released from prison on humanitarian grounds in 1999. Fourteen years later, and by then a nationally recognized writer and speaker, she founded PEN Myanmar, a local branch of PEN International, the worldwide organization fighting for freedom of expression and the rights of writers, especially those silenced by authorities.
Since Thida’s time in Insein, Myanmar has seen many changes. Scores of political activists have been freed from prison and Aung Sang Suu Kyi has been elected to parliament. Yet behind the signs of progress there is still a palpable tension. Bloody clashes between ethnic groups and security forces are frequent, and key positions in parliament are still assigned to the military.
Recently, Thida’s prison memoir, “Prisoner of Conscience: My Steps Through Insein,” was published for the first time in English. She spoke with Women & Girls Hub about the importance of literature and the power of voice.
Women & Girls Hub: What work is PEN Myanmar doing to defend freedom of expression?
Ma Thida: Because of past censorship and heavy propaganda, writers have had no interactive way of reaching out to their audience and I really wanted to break this. I wanted more interaction between writers and readers and vice versa, so we have been organizing public discussions where writers can read their work aloud and we have had discussions in public places, like on trains and in bus stops.
Women & Girls Hub: How can literature enhance society?
Thida: Literature is about people, it digs into the heart of a society. Unlike journalism or media, which is about facts and figures, literature provides deep insight into people’s true nature and their thinking. My country has been in a big black hole of isolation, so we really don’t know each other enough, especially the minority groups. I feel everyone should learn about each other, and the easiest and most effective way to do this is through literature.
Women & Girls Hub: Is it hard for people to find their voice after so many years of not just state but also self-censorship?
Thida: Even though there is no more state censorship, there is still peer and self-censorship and we are still seeing the symptoms of our past isolation. People are still struggling to [write] a page; there is still an inertia and people are struggling with their own feelings of authority.
Their identity has been lost for such a long time that they do not even know their own potential. And we still have so many ethnic groups fighting each other. Censorship, propaganda and a substandard education system have meant there is a struggle for mutual understanding. It’s why promoting freedom of expression and all the different voices is the most important thing right now.
The most dangerous thing about censorship is that it affects people’s way of thinking. After five decades you can imagine. For example, certain subjects might be considered taboo and over time people become indifferent to these topics or issues. They don’t feel the need to investigate or think beyond, and due to substandard education, they don’t know how. So people’s way of thinking becomes designed and this is a big problem.
Women & Girls Hub: Do you think your experience of being in prison was different to the experiences of the men who were incarcerated at the same time?
Thida: I think the experience was very different, especially for the political prisoners as there were not so many female political prisoners during my time, yet there were many in the men’s section, who were able to form a strong collective. They smuggled in shortwave radios, they kept themselves very motivated and updated, and they would continue to have serious discussions. Also many male guards secretly helped them, while in the female section that wasn’t the case. Sadly sometimes women can be enemies amongst themselves. And the female guards were suffering themselves, through a lack of knowledge and education, and were powerless compared to their male counterparts. So they didn’t dare to help us.
Women & Girls Hub: The perception is that Myanmar is on the road to real freedom and democracy, yet you recently stated that you are “not optimistic about the current political system.” Can you tell us why and what you think needs to be done?
Thida: What I really want is a public apology, not only for myself but for my people. There should be a mechanism to acknowledge and admit what was wrong and who is responsible, without any bitterness or hatred. It could reduce the tension and people’s psychology of hatred and wanting revenge.
We also need a new or amended constitution, because with the 2008 constitution, it’s like having two parallel governments at the same time. The army is still in control of the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Border Affairs and the police are still under the control of the military. Although we have three pillars – executive, legislative and judiciary – separated by the law, the power sharing is not clear.